7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
9
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
9
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
8
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
5
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
9
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
9
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
77 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
Asia
country
Cambodia / Indonesia / Laos / Malaysia / Myanmar (Burma) / Philippines / Singapore / Thailand / Vietnam
Length of time
Month or more
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 6,000
Time of year visited
October
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
52nd/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 20% SUMMARY RATING: World Class

Summary

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:

 

  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan

 

And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

highlights

#1 Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Taking the back routes and cycling through some of the lesser known parts of this giant complex and finding temples often all to yourself

#2 Komodo Islands, Indonesia. Taking a boat trip through the stunning Komodo National Park to see jagged savannah-covered mountains meeting bright white sand beaches across 30 islands surrounded by gorgeous turquoise waters filled with manta rays. And . . . getting to see the Komodo Dragons

#3 Bagan, Burma. Cycling through the lush plain to see thousands of temples, many of which have only a number rather than a name, finding the "key holder" and being left to explore all on your own

#4 HaLong Bay, Vietnam. Drifting by on a traditional junk boat through one of the Natural Wonders of the World

#5 Hoi An, Vietnam. Wandering through the old bridges and lantern spots of this UNESCO-listed historic old town

#6 Ubud, Indonesia. Experiencing the closest thing to the Jungle Book by staying in one of the gorgeous villas surrounded by lush jungle in Ubud, Bali

#7 Mai Chau, Vietnam. Cycling between the lush green patchwork of rice fields in the stunning valley setting of Mai Chau

##8 Vang Vien, Laos. Jumping into a rubber ring and drifting the 4km / 2.5 miles through lush jungle, emerald green paddy fields and looking up at the serene karst hills around Vang Vien

#9 Hanoi, Vietnam. Pulling up one of those small plastic seats and grabbing one of the fresh Vietnamese beers as you watch the mayhem go by from Bia Hoi Junction in Hanoi's Old Town

#10 Inle Lake, Burma. Chilling by the beautiful mirrored water as you watch the locals getting on with their lives in what has been a very turbulent country

#11 Bali, Indonesia. The world class restaurants and bars of Seminyak meet the effortless shabby chic of UluWatu Padang Padang Beach in Bali

#12 Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. Relaxing and diving around the beautiful waters of South West Thailand

#13 Laos. The magnificent views out the window as you bus ride through central Laos

#14 Sapa, Vietnam. Catching the views of the nearby mountains as you zip by on your motorbike through the hills of Sapa

#15 Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Taking a boat trip through the Mekong Delta to see the way people work, eat, sleep and live all on the river

#16 Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui, Thailand. Getting a bit loose at a Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan

#17 Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Enjoying the buzz and energy of the epicentre of Vietnam's boom. Encapsulated perfectly in crossing the street as thousands of motorbikes swerve and swarm impossibly round you

#18 Luang Prabang, Laos. Wandering through the Old Town with its Monks walking by on their way to prayers and with the jungle and Mekong River surrounding

#19 Hoi An, Vietnam. Seeing the sunset from the world class An Bang beach with its gorgeous bay setting

#20 Burma. Just the sheer other-worldliness randomness of the country

OPTIONAL EXTRA - staying in guesthouses on the white sand beaches, turquoise waters and jungle islands of Raja Ampat, Indonesia. About as close to tropical paradise as you can get

OPTIONAL EXTRA - making your way through forgotten towns and a land still vacated by tourists as you take a ferry down the Irrawaddy in Northern Burma

OPTIONAL EXTRA - diving with Thresher Sharks in the idyllic small tropical island of Malapascua, The Philippines

OPTIONAL EXTRA - stop off in the futuristic city of Singapore and its wonderful Gardens by the Bay

OPTIONAL EXTRA - quad biking through the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, in The Philippines. Like something from a Super Mario game

OPTIONAL EXTRA - trekking through the mountainous jungles around Chiang Mai, Thailand

OPTIONAL EXTRA - world class diving with fish often so dense you can barely see through them in the diving mecca of Raja Ampat, Indonesia

OPTIONAL EXTRA - diving off the beautiful warm waters of Balicasag Island near Bohol, in The Philippines

Rough itinerary

  • Day 1-2 – Bangkok.  Bangkok acts as a one of the key hubs for South East Asia and it is where many people starts their travels from.  With Thailand as a whole being generally easy to travel through, Bangkok gives you that simplicity plus that instant hit of South East Asian energy

OPTIONAL EXTRA – staying in Thailand, consider 3/4 days to head up to Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai  for trekking through the jungles and seeing the elephant sanctuaries

  • Day 3-7 – Cambodia.  Take the bus (or fly) to Siem Riep for 2 days to see the majestic Angkor Wat, one of the Wonders of the World and highlight of South East Asia.  Be sure to see the main headline temples, but the highlight is actually cycling around the lesser known temples that will give you that wonderful feeling of adventure as you explore some of them all to yourself.  Head then to Phnom Penh for the somber experience of the Killing Fields.  See these travel entries for more details and tips on each one – Cycling around Angkor Wat and The killing fields of Phnom Penh
  • Day 8-10 – Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, aka Saigon) and the Mekong Delta.  Take the bus from Phnom Penh to HCM to see the brimming energy of the city at the epicenter of Vietnam’s boom.  Also make time for an overnight boat trip through the Mekong Delta to see how people spend their whole lives living on the river and to see the Cu Chi Tunnels for just how claustrophobic it must have been for the Vietcong fighters
OPTIONAL EXTRA – give yourself a few more days for stops in Mui Ne Beach, Nha Trang and Hue to break up the journey from South Vietnam to North Vietnam.  Mu Ne offers a 20km stretch of beach and is the centre in Vietnam for watersports; Nha Trang is overdeveloped and tacky but does offer a partying break and some interesting mud baths / boat trips nearby; and Hue is the former Imperial Capital of Vietnam with old palaces to wander through (a very typical stop on the Vietnam route)

 

  • Day 11-14 – Hoi An.  Take one of the super comfortable night buses from HCMC up to Hoi An, the highlight of Vietnam.  Enjoy the UNESCO-listed historic old town that miraculously avoided destruction in the war and even more miraculously has still largely avoided the over commercialisation of the modern day; the world class An Bang beach with its gorgeous bay setting; the 500+ master tailors ready to make anything you want cheap as chips, and the other UNESCO-listed ancient Cham ruins of My Son within an hours drive
  • Day 15 – 21 – Northern Vietnam.  Base yourself in Hanoi’s wonderful Old Town where you must try the fresh beer by Bia Hoi Junction, and use Hanoi as the hub to branch out for a overnight boatrip through the dramatic karst peaks in the Natural Wonder of the World Halong Bay, a day cycling through the patchwork of lush green rice fields like something out of an Asian Fairytale in Mai Chau, and a overnight train journey up to explore the hilltop villages and tribes around Sapa on the back of a motorbike.  See these travel entries for more details and tips on each one An overnight boat trip through HaLong Bay – The Bay of the Descending Dragon, Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau, and Sapa – taking a motorbike around the mountain scenery and hilltop villages
  • Day 22 – 26 Laos.  Fly to Luang Prabang (you could take the bus but it takes 24+hours) for about as close an “Authentic Asia” experience as you’re going to get.  The Old Town is a timeless UNESCO World Heritage site, with monks still walking all around you on their daily business as they rush from one beautiful temple to the next; and the location is stunning as the  confluence of the Mekong and Kham rivers.  Be sure to check out the nearby waterfalls of Tat Kuang Si that look like something from a fantasy novel.  Take a bus down to Vang Vien for tubing down the Mekong through lush jungle, emerald green paddy fields and looking up at the serene karst hills.  See these very brief travel entries for more tips – Waterfalls and mountain views in Luang Prabang and Tubing down the Mekong in Vang Vien
  • Day 27 – Give yourself a day to make you way to Mandalay.  Most realistically a flight from Vientiane to Bangkok and then over to Mandalay
  • Day 28 – 35 – Central Burma.  Give yourself 2 days in Mandalay to take in the views of the Palace from Mandalay Hill and head further out to see the giant Mingun Paya, plus the old colonial capital of Inwa and to walk with the monks across the world’s longest teak bridge at U-Bein.  Then take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan to give yourself 2 days to explore the sheer vast number of temples across this world-class site.  First day should simply be getting lost cycling around in the mystery of it all, second day taking a guide to explain the context and show some of the key sites.  Next decide if you want to take the 10 hour bus (bone rattling but with stunning views) or fly to Inle Lake to spend a couple of days chilling out and taking mini boat trips around the serene Inle Lake with its gorgeous mirror effect.  See these travel entries for more details and tips on each location Seeing some of the key sites around Mandalay, Cycling around the Temples of Bagan and Boating around the serene Inle Lake in central Burma
OPTIONAL EXTRA – for a true adventure feeling, fly to the northern Burmese town of Myitkyina and take 6 days to make your way via ferry and train down the mighty Irrawaddy River as you pass through towns and transit routes still largely untouched by the modern tourist wave.  When you include the breathtaking views of the mountains, the chance to see the real local villages along the mighty Irrawaddy River, and the old echoes of the former colonial past, this is a truly great travel experience.  See this entry for more details and tips – Exploring Northern Burma by train and ferry from Myitkyina, via Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay

 

  • Day 36 – Fly back to Bangkok and fly down to the southern Thai islands
OPTIONAL EXTRA – the Philippines often get missed out in South East Asia itineraries because they are physically detached, which means flying and, usually, two flights, which is a shame because the country has some superb experiences.  If you have that bit of extra time (around 6-7 days), fly over to Cebu and use it as a launchpad for diving with Thresher Sharks and chilled out beach vibes on Malapascua Island, bus over to the Sardine Run on the west of the island, and the ferry over to Bohol for quad biking through the Chocolate Hills and seeing the Tarsiers, the world’s smallest, and very delicate, primates.  See these travel entries for more details and tips on each experience –Diving with Thresher Sharks at Malapascua Island, Quad-biking through the Bohol Chocolate hills and Diving off Balicasag Island

 

OPTIONAL EXTRA – before you fly down to Indonesia (or potentially on the way through), it’s worth considering 2 days in either Penang for the Old Town of George Town or Singapore for its Gardens by the Bay, world-class marina and to see how this futuristic city of the future works so well.  There’s a good chance that you will fly through Singapore, so take the chance to stay for a couple of days.  More details and tips here for Singapore – 2 days in Singapore

 

  • Day 42 – fly down to Bali
  • Day 43 – 47 – Bali.  Spend 2/3 days hitting the world-class restaurants in Seminyak and surf bliss of Uluwatu, but also make sure you stay for a few days in a jungle villa in Ubud with its dense jungle hiding vibrantly green rice terraces, old Hindu temples, and a chilled out Balinese hippy-yoga-heart-rate-so-low-you’re practically-dead vibe throughout.  It’s the closest thing you can get to the Jungle Book and Ubud is the centre of this.  See these travel entries for more details and tips on each location – Bali – in and around Seminyak / Kuta and Bali – in and around Ubud
  • Day 48 – 51 – the Komodo Islands.  Fly over from Bali to Labuan Bajo and arrange for a boat ride through the islands to see the Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat.  This is amazing, but the highlight are the islands themselves where you have spectacular scenery as jagged savannah-covered mountains meet bright white sand beaches across 30 islands surrounded by gorgeous turquoise waters filled with manta rays . . . indeed, truly awful.  See the individual travel entry – Taking a local boat around the Komodo Islands for 3 days – for more tips
OPTIONAL EXTRA – Raja Ampat.  5/6 days to scuba dive and explore this chain of islands paradise through either a liveaboard boat or staying in guest houses by the beach.  A scuba divers’ paradise that is still largely untouched by the tourist wave.  It’s actually a toss up between this and spending the days in the Komodo Island.  More details in the individual travel entry – Diving and staying in guest houses in Raja Ampat

 

  • Day 52 – leave with memories of one of the world’s best regions to travel

Experiences nearby

The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences

Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone